alto, aria, bass, Boulder Bach Festival, cadence, cantata, emotions, improvisation, Joe Damon Chappel, Leipzig, opera, ornamentation, passion, performance practice, recitative, Rick Erickson, soprano, St. Thomas School, tessitura
Edward McCue (EM) What is noteworthy about the way that Bach writes for the bass voice?
Joe Damon Chappel (JDC) While Bach wrote most of his soprano and alto parts for young boys whose voices had not yet changed, he wrote his bass arias and recitatives for mature voices. His basses were typically young men who had been under his training for six, seven or even eight years at St. Thomas School in Leipzig, and, as a result, Bach wrote the bass parts to be as difficult as any written for other instruments. Within a single aria he may demand both extremely low and high tessituras and ask for very long runs with very few chances to take a breath. As a bass you get a lot of good exercise when you sing Bach, and your solos are often much more emotionally complex than those written for the upper voices.
EM For what kinds of personalities did Bach compose bass solos?
JDC Well, in the passions and throughout the cantatas, the bass roles were as dramatic as those written for any opera. Bach’s original basses would not have sung the notes exactly as they appeared on the score, but they would have added a personal dramatic element while telling the story.
Bach was very text driven and wrote big clues in the music. For example, when he writes a huge interval or a dissonant interval, such as an augmented fourth, he indicates that something very dramatic is going on. As a result, he doesn’t make it difficult for me to plug-in emotionally to what I’m singing.
EM Does this encourage you to improvise or ornament your part beyond what is shown in the score?
JDC Rick Erickson and I don’t shy away from ornamentation, but we are careful to keep ornamentation from becoming overly elaborate or outside of the confines of good taste. We’ve decided that it’s best to think of my voice as being just another instrument to be woven into a shared harmonic tapestry, so when we ornament things, such as at cadences, it’s because it’s part of the style and not just to stand out. We’ve been doing this together for so long now, it’s been almost twenty years, that ornamentation has become second nature for us.
EM So are you able to apply this performance practice to the music of other composers?
JDC Singing Bach informs pretty much every other thing that I do, even things that aren’t Baroque. Bach is home base for me and is what feels good to my voice. When things in life become stressful and when I need to get centered again, I turn to Bach. Singing Bach calls upon all of my talents, and so when I sing Bach, I’m always able to regain my balance.